Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir has been Head of Department of Foreign Relations at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since 2006. He was previously the KRG liaison officer to the Coalition Provisional Authority and to the Multi-National Forces in Erbil. He was also Minister of State. He recently visited Canada to meet with Canadian officials from the newly elected Liberal Government. Foreign Policy Concepts spoke with Minister Falah about relations between the KRG and Canada, the military situation on the ground in northern Iraq, and other key regional developments.
What were the objectives of your trip to Canada and did you meet your objectives?
My trip to Canada had a two-fold objective. The first was to visit Canada and meet with Canadian officials here to discuss with them the situation on the ground in the Iraqi Kurdistan and the contribution of Canada to the fight against Islamic State/Daesh as well as the need to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees and internally displaced people in our region. In the course of our meetings we sought to identify other areas of cooperation between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Canada.
The second aspect of our trip was to participate in the Halifax International Security Forum, which I believe is an important gathering. Over 300 security professionals from 60 countries got together to discuss issues and challenges that face the world. We benefited from each other’s experience in the Forum, which I think is one of the best ways to exchange ideas.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m satisfied with my visit to Canada. I was able to communicate the message of my government and people and I thank Canada for its contribution and support it has provided to us and the solidarity it has shown in the fight against ISIS. Canada’s contribution to the air campaign and training capacity as well as the equipment it has provided in the war effort have been greatly appreciated during our visit. We also thank Canada for the humanitarian assistance it has provided to the Kurdish people.
Going forward, with a new government in Ottawa, do you have any specific expectations from the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
Since this is a new government, therefore, we thought it would be a timely visit to start talks to ensure the continuation of the support that has been provided to us; secondly to continue the discussions so that we can have a better mechanism for the government-to-government and institution-to-institution relationships. We also want to expand the relationship with Canada beyond military level to include commerce, education, and culture. Our message is that KRG believes in an open door policy and reaches out to build relations. We are happy at the level of the relations we have with the Canadian embassy, but we would like to have a direct relationship that would involve upgrading the level of representation from a trade liaison to consular general in Erbil. We want this upgrade in relations to provide the opportunity for political consultations, economic cooperation, and development of educational programs.
Moving to regional issues, let’s look at the fight against ISIS/Daesh. We know that in the course of its territorial onslaught in the summer of 2014, ISIS managed to capture Mosul, not far from Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan region. And, if you will, ISIS continues to pose a strategic security threat to the KRG. The question is why there has not been a major military effort to reclaim Mosul from the Islamic State in spite of many talks and debates about the need for such an effort?
Well, as far as we are concerned, we have made a lot of progress. Large areas have been reclaimed from ISIS. To give you a number, more than 25,000 square kilometers have been liberated. So ISIS has been pushed back and today it is much weaker than they were last year. But as you rightly mentioned, they are still in Mosul. Last year they were closer to Erbil, but now we are closer to Mosul.
I need to emphasize that the situation in Mosul is sensitive and delicate. Because Mosul is a mixed and diverse city. Its ethnic makeup consists of Arabs, Turks, Turkmans, Christians, Assyrians, Sunnis, and Shia. Therefore, it’s not the responsibility of the KRG and the Peshmargas to liberate Mosul. This has to be an Iraqi effort, by that I mean Kurdish Peshmarga forces can play an important role in the liberation of Mosul, but there has to be the presence and participation of the Iraqi as well as participation of Sunni forces and tribal leaders so that this becomes an Iraqi effort. Such an effort does not need to turn into an Arab-Kurdish, or a Sunni-Shia power struggle; and that’s why we have to be careful about the way we move forward to reclaim Mosul from ISIS/Daesh.
So you’re saying that there needs to be a well-coordinated effort by the various stakeholders that you just referred to?
Yes, we need coordination and also we need these forces to be combat ready. Let me tell you that Kurdish Peshmerga forces are ready and whenever the Iraqi forces are ready we can start this effort. Since last year up until now we have been able to achieve big successes, thanks to the excellent cooperation that has been there between coalition airstrikes and the Peshmarga on the ground.
The combination of an effective and efficient air cover with reliable partners on the ground made it possible for us to regain territory, push back ISIS, and deliver them a heavy blow. And the most recent example was the big victory in Sinjar, which is now liberated. The challenge in Sinjar now is to ensure its safety and security; to cleanse it of IEDs and to embark on rebuilding it because 60 percent of Sinjar has been destroyed as a result of being under the control of ISIS and air bombardments. We believe the contribution of airstrikes have been great in facilitating our victory over ISIS in Sinjar.
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been very concerned about the advances of YPG, the Kurdish militia forces in northern Syria that is fighting ISIS. And Turkish forces have targeted YPG in northern Syria. How have these dynamics in northern Syria affected the relations between the Turkish government and the KRG?
As far as we are concerned, we have been very clear. When we talk about the KRG relations with Turkey this is not at the expense of the Kurds in Turkey, nor in Syria nor in Iran. We are a peaceful neighbor to Turkey, which is an important country to us as it is an outlet to the outside world for us. We have always wanted to develop good ties with them politically, economically, educationally, and culturally. We already have good energy cooperation with them. Turkey is an important political partner for the KRG.
The situation in Syria is complicated, where we have too many players on the ground. This is our approach: While Syria is important to us and the situation there matters to us, we also want the Kurds in Syria to be united and to fight under one umbrella for a better future.
The issues between YPG and Turkey are because of YPG’s association with the PKK. While we want the Kurds in Syria to have a better relationship with the different groups among themselves, we also want them to stand for change in Syria. It is not for us to interfere, but the KRG has always encouraged the Kurds inside Syria to be united, strong, and to have a clear statement and vision for their future. We also encourage them to work with the international community.
Has your government spoken to Turkish officials in the Erdogan administration about bombardment of Kurds in northern Syria by Turkish forces, or even offered them to approach this geopolitical problem in northern Syria through non-military means?
As a neighbor to Turkey we discuss the political and security situation as well as the current developments on the ground in Syria. Let’s keep in mind that it was the government of Turkey, thanks to the U.S. efforts as well, that allowed Kurdish Peshmerga forces to cross Turkish territory from the Iraqi Kurdistan to enter Kobane in support of Kurdish fighters there to liberate the city.
When there is understanding and talks we can bring about good results, but when there are no channels of communication, this can be difficult. The point is that we are not part of these problems, we are not part of the differences which are there. It is important for the YPG to assure Turkey of its intentions. As for us in the Iraqi Kurdistan, we have proven to Turkey and Iran that we are a peaceful neighbor and seek good neighborly relations and we want to make sure that there is understanding on bilateral basis. So that’s why both sides have to be always ready to come forward and communicate so that there are no misunderstandings.
If the government in Baghdad decided to seek Russian participation in a possible coordinated assault on Mosul to reclaim the city from ISIS/Daesh and invited Russia to partake in such an effort, would the KRG embrace such an idea?
I don’t think this would be a wise idea, because right now we already have an international coalition that is led by the United States. The U.S has come to the assistance of Iraq and the Kurdistan region in the fight against ISIS. The U.S has daily air strikes in Iraq and Syria. When they have trainers and advisers on the ground working with the Iraqi army and with the Kurdistan region, how could you bring a new player without any coordination? So we are part of this concerted international effort and I think it would complicate the issues and not lead to good results if we added a new element and a new dynamic.
How would you describe the current state of relations between the KRG and the Iranian government? Has the success of the KRG impacted the dynamics of Kurdish politics and the status of Kurds in Iran?
We enjoy good relations with Iran. Iran is an important neighbor; we have historic ties with it. There are already good educational and cultural ties to Iran. We enjoy good political understanding with them and this is what we expect to continue in our relations with Iran.
With respect to the second part of your question, we’ve always been clear that we support the rights of Kurdish people in Iran, Turkey, and Syria and we hope that Kurdish people in each of these countries reach an understanding and agreement with their respective government peacefully. The success of the KRG will certainly have an impact on the Kurds everywhere and we have been in solidarity and supportive of their success in the countries they live.
In your view, what factors and forces contributed mostly to the emergence of ISIS/Daesh ?
When you talk about the emergence of ISIS/Daesh, you need to look at the root causes of its emergence. Even if we eliminate ISIS today, tomorrow something else and something worse will emerge in its place. That’s why we need to address the root causes.
In many ways, ISIS is the result of the nature of dictatorial regimes in the region, lack of social justice and good governance, mismanagement of resources in regional countries, and denial of identities of minorities. These are the issues that we always need to give consideration to when we talk about the creation and expansion of ISIS.
However, when we talk about ISIS in Iraq, we need to be cognizant of the wrong policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that led us to a situation that prepared the ground for the emergence of ISIS. Some of Maliki’s key misguided policies included the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and exclusion of Sunnis in Iraq; depriving them of a feeling of belonging to the country’s future. We all remember that three years ago peaceful demonstrations were staged in the Anbar province over issues of security, government services, and inclusion in the political process. And the response of the Maliki government was to deal with demonstration militarily and violently. This helped exacerbate the situation coupled with the crisis in Syria, which enabled violent elements to benefit from these dynamics, leading to the situation that we are in now.
Remember that we can fight ISIS/Daesh physically on the ground and defeat it, but we also have to fight it and defeat it ideologically as well. Through the promotion of its violent ideology, ISIS has been able to recruit thousands of people from many countries. We have to fight them ideologically, but there needs to be international cooperation. There are also other aspects to this fight, mainly logistical, financial, intelligence sharing, and economics.
Let’s take a look at the current dynamics of the war in Syria. With the multitude of players in the war in Syria, what do you make of the conflict and do you see a possible outcome in the near future?
With too many players in it, the war in Syria has reached a very complicated phase. It was a different thing when it started originally and now it has become a totally different thing. Everyday a new element is added to the conflict, which makes it even more complex. The international community is required to put an end to the continuity of this crisis. Civilians have been displaced, millions have become refugees, and hundreds of thousands have been killed.
We believe so long as there is no will to end this crisis militarily, we all have to stick with the Vienna conference, which brought a new dynamic with all eleven players at the table discussing the future of Syria. So the more the talks continue, the better we will be in having a rapprochement among the players.
An understanding between the United States and Russia would be particularly important to reach a political/diplomatic outcome. Right now it has been so far proven that there is no military solution; secondly the issue of an alternative government has proven to be either ISIS/Daesh, Al-Nusra, or Ahrar’ol Sham, groups that everybody would be oppose to. Having a diplomatic/political tool will pave the way for transition in Syria that would be in the interest of stability and security.
KRG as a neighbor to Syria would like to see stability, security, and transition to democracy in which everyone including the Kurds of Syria would enjoy a better future. But to leave this crisis in its current state and form, will be a threat to everyone involved. I don’t think any neighbor would welcome a situation like this as it would negatively affect everyone: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq etc. It is in everybody’s interest to get together and find a way out of this crisis.
Are you optimistic about a U.S—Russian understanding over Syria?
Americans and Russians have their own interests, but if both sides want to bring stability and peace, I think the only tool at their disposal is the talks in Vienna. And I believe that this is the approach that they should stay committed to because we have entered the fifth year of this crisis with no military solution in sight. A military approach that is only against ISIS/Daesh will not change the situation on the ground, that’s why we have to have a new approach to ending this crisis with a roadmap to transition in Syria.
I would like to add that the Kurdistan region is at the forefront of the fight against ISIS/Daesh. Our frontline against ISIS is 1050 kilometers long. This has been a costly war for us with Kurdish Peshmergas paying with their lives. This conflict has affected the region economically as well. A great humanitarian contribution by the KRG is that it has welcomed over two million internally displaced people from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. This is a big challenge; on the one hand fighting the ISIS and on the other hand caring for the refugees and internally displaced people.